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Via the repo market, real banks came to resemble shadow banks

An excellent review of Yves Smith’s new book “ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism” at Jesse’s Cafe Amercain

There is a very interesting bit about the shadow banking system and repos… of course no one in Washington is talking about this…

“…And now we are ready for Chapter 9, where all the malign forces described in the rest of the book converge into one mighty foul-up.

Exhibit One is the Shadow Banking System, whose components are: securitization, whereby loans turn into assets; repos, whereby assets are used as security for loans (note that we are now into the dangerous territory sketched out in Chapter 8); and finally, Credit Default Swaps, which guarantee the quality of the loans underlying the assets, and thus the resilience of the repo market; and everything in the garden is lovely.

There are still other elements of the shadow banking system: the notorious conduits (a zoo of abbreviations: SPEs, OBS vehicles, SIVs, CDOs); the money market funds. These are all just thinly capitalized banks, totally dependent on capital markets to fund their activities.

But it’s really the description of mid-Noughties repo that made the light bulbs go on for me. Via the repo market, real banks came to resemble shadow banks, more and more; and their fortunes became intertwined; which was very dangerous. In the good old days, repos were a respectable mechanism for managing liquidity by securing lending against high class assets – Treasuries; the highest quality assets of all. But various new myths meant that there was a ready way to satisfy the massive demand for short term funding driven by the rise of hedge funds and OTC derivative trading during the Noughties.

Myth 1: the false security of the Credit Default Swap, which simply substituted the creditworthiness of the swap seller for the creditworthiness of the debt issuer; myth 2: the credit rating bought from agencies by the debt peddlers; myth 3: the “haircut”, propagated by the Basel II regulations, by which all manner of securities could be deemed suitable collateral for repos, subject only to a finger in the air discount, the ‘haircut’.

The BIS (originators of Basel II) cleared its throat discreetly in 2001, warning that a collateral shortage would cause

“appreciable substitution into collateral having relatively higher issuer and liquidity risk.”

…but no-one was listening. Estimates are hard to come by, but the claim that the Shadow Banking System was just as big as the regulated one by 2006 seems plausible: that’s $10 Trillion in old fashioned deposit based banking and the same again in Shadow Banking. But note: you would have to put pretty wide error bars on that number; the whole Shadow Banking System was unregulated, quite invisible to outsiders.

Its fragile structure did catch the eye of the looters, though. Chapter 9 exposes the mechanism by which one market operator set out to profit from the credit boom, and even more, from the bust. I’m afraid you will have to buy your own copy of the book to get the full details. Suffice it to say that it’s an eye-popping story of vandalism-for-profit, with elements wholly familiar from earlier chapters: it’s the Mexico story and others, all over again; but lots bigger. The lazy or hurried may prefer Appendix 2 as a short form summary, but it’s worth reading Chapter 9 to get the full flavour.

It is illuminating indeed to see the events of September ’08 and after as a near-cataclysmic run not so much on traditional banks as on the shadow banking system, as the Credit Default Swaps turned out to have been written by companies that couldn’t honor their promises, the loans turned out to be of dreadful quality, panicked investors pulled their money from the repo market, and there was a monstrous loss of liquid funding, with the undercapitalization of the banks hideously exposed.

Repo is at the very core of the near-collapse of the financial system. It is very striking that there have been few efforts to reregulate repo – of course, the low quality repo market packed up altogether during the crash, so maybe it’s completely invisible again to those bind and amnesiac powers that be. Partly, this sudden disappearance was the result of a buyers’ strike (still seemingly in force at the end of February 2010 – “fool me once”, they must be thinking out there); partly, though, the result of the Fed’s frantic efforts to plug the huge funding gap that had suddenly (and one suspects wholly unexpectedly) appeared. Yes, well, that’s the sort of nasty surprise you get when you don’t exercise oversight. Will the whole precarious mechanism all come back again when the Fed’s programs are finally terminated and the yield curve slope is no longer such an obliging source of riskless profit? One hopes not, but fears it will be so…”